J. Venkatesan

New Delhi: The Supreme Court has laid down principles to be followed by High Courts and appellate courts in the event of their overruling or otherwise disturbing a trial court’s acquittal of an accused in a criminal case.

A Bench of Justice R.V. Raveendran and Justice Dalveer Bhandari said: “The appellate court is given wide powers to review evidence to come to its own conclusions. But this power must be exercised with great care and caution. In order to ensure that innocents are not punished, the appellate court should attach due weight to the lower court’s acquittal because the presumption of innocence is further strengthened by the acquittal. It should, therefore, reverse an acquittal only when it has very substantial and compelling reasons.”

Illustrative list

Writing the judgment, Justice Bhandari said: “Very substantial and compelling reasons exist when the trial court’s conclusion with regard to facts is palpably wrong; the trial court’s decision was based on an erroneous view of law; the trial court’s judgment is likely to result in a grave miscarriage of justice; the entire approach of the trial court in dealing with evidence was patently illegal; the trial court’s judgment was manifestly unjust and unreasonable; the trial court has ignored evidence or misread the material evidence or ignored material documents like dying declarations/report of the ballistic expert, etc.”

The Bench said: “This list is intended to be illustrative, not exhaustive. The appellate court must always give proper weight and consideration to the findings of the trial court. Its power of reviewing evidence is wide and the appellate court can re-appreciate the entire evidence on record. It can review the trial court’s conclusion with respect to both facts and law. If two reasonable views can be reached — one that leads to acquittal, the other to conviction — the High Courts/appellate courts must rule in favour of the accused.”

In the instant case, a trial court in Uttar Pradesh acquitted Ghurey Lal in a case of murder over a property dispute. On appeal by the State, the Allahabad High Court held him guilty and awarded life sentence. Allowing Lal’s appeal against this judgment, the Bench said: “On a careful analysis of the entire evidence on record, we are of the view that the reasons given by the High Court for reversing the acquittal are unsustainable and contrary to settled principles of law. The appellant would be set at liberty forthwith.”